When it became too painful for Brooks Orpik to simply take the stairs one flight up from the Capital One Arena parking garage, opting for the elevator instead, he knew it was time to stop playing hockey. After a 16-season NHL career, including the past five years in Washington, Orpik announced his retirement Tuesday.
The 38-year-old defenseman twice won the Stanley Cup — with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 and with the Capitals in 2018 — and as an alternate captain for his entire tenure in Washington, Orpik was considered a culture-changing presence in the dressing room. He said his initial goal was to play in just one NHL game, so after 1,035 of them (in the regular season alone), he wants to spend more time with his two daughters.
”I would leave the rink every day, and then half the time I was at home I was doing treatment on my knee, and I had my kids pulling me to do other stuff I couldn’t do,” Orpik said. “I didn’t want to play through the pain that I played through last year. It was a pretty easy decision, to be honest with you. A lot of people struggle with it, but I didn’t struggle with it much.”
Orpik suffered a right knee injury during the first month of the 2018-19 season, and he had an arthroscopic procedure in November that forced him to miss roughly two months. “I think probably from the time I had surgery on, it was pretty evident that I wasn’t going to play another year after this,” Orpik said. He returned to the lineup in late December, but after the season he acknowledged that was probably too soon.
“I could just get it to a point where I could play for 2 1/2 hours and then pay for it afterwards and then try to do it all over again,” Orpik said.
His legacy with the Capitals will be more about what he did off the ice than on it. He was brought to Washington as a free agent in 2014 to stabilize the blue line as a physical, stay-at-home presence, but in that first season with a new coach (Barry Trotz) and a new general manager (Brian MacLellan), Orpik set the standard in the dressing room with his strict diet and training regimen. He was among the most beloved players on the team.
“It’s hard to put into words what a guy like that means to a team,” forward Tom Wilson said last month. “He’s best friends with the 19-year-old and he’s best friends with the 35-year-old. It’s just who he is. He’s one of the guys on the team who makes it fun coming to the rink. . . . That guy’s never taken a shift off in his whole career, I don’t think. There’s been some hard miles there.”
Orpik has said that he planned to complete his communications degree at Boston College once his playing career was over, and he has already looked into online classes. After years of others touting his hockey smarts and leadership, he could have a future in coaching, but he said he’s not interested in that at the moment because he wants to enjoy a schedule with less travel.
“I’ve got two young girls that I think I missed out on a lot of stuff the last few years,” he said.
The Capitals planned for his departure by acquiring blue-liner Radko Gudas in a trade this month with Philadelphia, and Gudas is expected to take on a similar crease-clearing, penalty-killing role to what Orpik played on Washington’s third defensive pairing. But all that Orpik brought to the team for five years won’t ever really be replaced.
“I guess you create your own legacy, but I’d rather somebody else talk about it than me,” Orpik said. “I can tell you what my goal was when I came here, and that was to help the group win a Stanley Cup, so I guess that was accomplished. I don’t really have any regrets. I had a great time here the five years I was here, my family included. I remember coming into free agency back in 2014; I think I was looking for a three-year contract, and I got a five-year contract. I was just hoping to get through the five years, and we did that, so I was happy for it.”
Read more on the Capitals: